President Obama spent much of 2011 attempting a doomed and misguided strategy to get Republicans to agree to a long-term compromise on the size and shape of government. By fall he had abandoned that, correctly determining that the Republican Party’s anti-tax absolutism made any such compromise impossible. Instead he has calculated that his only option is to turn the GOP’s obstinacy against it. Obama has constructed this effort around a series of major speeches, of which today’s was the third, pressing his point.
Today’s speech had less historical sweep than the past two and focused more narrowly on the point that has separated the two parties: the primacy of low taxes for the rich. Obama made a fairly simple argument. The Republican theory that low taxes (especially for high earners) is the essential ingredient in economic growth has been tested thoroughly over the last two decades. First Republicans insisted that Bill Clinton’s tax hikes on the rich would destroy growth and then that the George W. Bush tax cuts would create a boom. Both predictions utterly failed. (Obama did not mention that the Bush tax cuts remain in effect right now, and so that to whatever degree we blame policy for the meager growth since he took office, tax cuts ought to share the blame.) And yet, he noted, Republicans have shown not the slightest trace of intellectual humility, no inkling whatsoever that they ought to rethink supply-side economics.
Their tax-cut fixation, Obama proceeded to argue, forces them to embrace all sorts of cruel and simply stupid budget cuts: deep reductions to Medicaid, Pell Grants, infrastructure, and the like. Obama proclaimed his own willingness to make tough choices and again touted the balanced approach of the Bowles-Simpson deficit plan. But again and again he zeroed in on the point of contention: Republicans would require vastly larger spending cuts than he could accept because they refuse to accept any higher revenue. In his speech today, Obama explicitly tied Mitt Romney to the House Republican budget plan, framing the election as a choice of priorities: Do Americans really want to undergo the fiscal pain that would be required in order to maintain the low tax rates demanded by Republicans? He has every reason to believe the answer is no.
The Republican strategy has real strengths. The party’s sheer bloody-minded refusal to compromise, and its devotion to ever more radical policy agendas, has helped it to shift the terms of the debate steadily rightward. Even keeping tax rates at Clinton-era levels is now a position too left-wing for Democrats to advocate.
The weakness of this strategy is that it opens you up to political attack by allowing your opponent to claim the center. That is the ground Obama has gleefully seized.